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1) Bill Clinton US President

Music’s loss was politics’ gain in 1962, when the first tenor saxophone in the Arkansas state band decided he’d gone as far as he could with the instrument. ‘I loved music and thought I could be very good,’ wrote Bill Clinton many years later, ‘but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz.’

2) Alastair Cook Cricketer
A chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral as a youngster, England’s cricket captain went on to take up the saxophone at school. He still plays today and, in 2008, gamely put his skills to the test by agreeing to record a solo for the soundtrack of the BBC’s animated TV series Freefonix.

3) Ronald McNair Astronaut
In January 1986, Ronald McNair, a very accomplished saxophonist, was planning to make musical history by being the first person to record a piece of new music up in space – the work in question was by composer Jean Michel Jarre, with whom he had been collaborating. Tragically, the mission it was intended for ended in catastrophe, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded soon after take-off, killing all seven crew.

4) Lisa Simpson Cartoon schoolgirl
Simpsons fans have become familiar with the baritone saxophone. In each episode’s opening sequence, Lisa, Bart Simpson’s younger sister, plays an impromptu solo in her school band before heading with her sax down the corridor. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it.

5) Jude Law Actor
Jude Law prepared for the part of Dickie Greenleaf in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley by learning the saxophone, an instrument he’s shown playing during a night out at a jazz club. That’s ‘playing’ in the loosest sense – Law puts lips to sax in ‘Tu vuò fà l’americano’ and ‘My funny Valentine’, but his fingers don’t move a great deal…

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This year's First Night of the Proms is at 7.30pm on Friday 19 July 2019 and takes place at the Royal Albert Hall. It is estimated to finish at 9.45pm. You can find more about the process of how to buy tickets here.

The Prom will be broadcast live on BBC TV: the first half on BBC Two, before moving to BBC Four. As with all the Proms, it will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and available to stream on the BBC Proms website and BBC Sounds.

The yearlong BBC Our Classical Century series concludes at the First Night with a new work by Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landings. 

Programme:

Zosha Di Castri Long is the Journey - Short is the Memory (BBC commission, world premiere)
Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (Final version 1928, Henry Wood Novelties: UK premiere 1930)

Asmik Grigorian (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
Ladislav Elgr (tenor)
Eric Owens (bass-baritone)
Peter Holder (organ)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis

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In February this year, André Previn, best known for his role as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (1968-1979), sadly died aged 89. Throughout his musical career, Previn flourished as a conductor, composer and performer, winning four Academy Awards and eleven Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

From his great accolades, we have reviewed and chosen the five best recordings of Previn's work: 

Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2

LSO/ André Previn

Warner Classics 0852892

Recorded in 1973 at Kingsway Hall, London, Previn put the original, uncut version of this then-neglected symphony firmly back on the map

André Previn conducts Vaughan Williams

Soloists, LSO/André Previn

RCA 88875126952 (download)

Previn recorded this CD with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s, creating one of the greatest recordings of the highly acclaimed Vaughan Williams symphonies. The interpretations here cast refreshing new light on this great cycle.

Previn Violin Concerto ‘Anne-Sophie’

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Boston Symphony Orchestra/André Previn

DG E4745002

Previn dedicated this violin concerto to his future wife, Anne-Sophie, and it was first performed in 2002 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The violin part was written for his fiancée and seen as a musical love letter from Previn. This work is a major statement from the composer-conductor’s later years, performed with warmth and firepower by its dedicatee

Walton Symphony No. 1

LSO/André Previn

Sony G010004009424W (download only)

This four movement Symphony composed between 1931-35 was one of Walton's two symphonies. Previn’s first recording of this symphony remains remarkable for its crackling rhythmic energy and drive

Gershwin Rhapsody In Blue ; Piano Concerto

André Previn (piano), LSO

Warner Classics 2435668912

Previn performed these two well-known works by Gershwin, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. The close bond with his orchestra can be heard, alongside a definitive display of Previn’s keyboard skills, deftly catching the music’s lyrical inventiveness and improvisatory streak

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The BBC Philharmonic has launched a new service for its concert goers. The web app called Notes sends information about the works being performed and the composers and performers involved live to audience members’ smart phones in the concert hall.

Users can connect via Wi-Fi or 3G to open a web browser on their phones, receiving these live updates as they correspond with specific moments in the music or events happening on stage. These notes are triggered by a member of the BBC Philharmonic team at the back of the hall, who follows a score and changes the information onscreen accordingly. All the programme notes are tweet length (around 140-200 characters), and have been road-tested for the last few months in a handful of concerts.

Those utilising this new service will be positioned in a particular area of the hall away from other audience members, so as not to disturb those around them.

The programme will fully launch in September, with Notes available for all concerts in the BBC Philharmonic’s main Bridgewater Hall season. Tickets for concerts with use of the Notes function cost £12.50 (£5.50 online or £3 in person to students and under 26s) and are available now here. When booking online, look for Notes tickets in the Side Circle Left and Right.

Look out for our feature on Notes in an upcoming issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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L’Orfeo
Ian Bostridge etc; Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
Virgin 948 2532

Characterful instrumental playing, with Bostridge as close as anyone to the ‘speaking in song’ of the time.

1610 Vespers
Taverner Consort & Players/Andrew Parrott
Virgin 561 6622

A classic recording, with full liturgical reconstruction and phenomenally good choral and consort tuning.

Fourth Book of Madrigals
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP30502

A virtuosic account of this great a capella book.

Flaming Heart – secular choral works
I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth
Chandos CHAN0730

An excellent introduction, with madrigals drawn from several books.

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'Performed with great eloquence'

This week's free download is Parry's Elegy for Brahms, performed by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra under Jaime Martín and recorded on the Ondine label. The recording was awarded four stars for performance and five for recording in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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Vaughan Williams discovers Walt Whitman and studies with Maurice Ravel, who both influence his first great orchestral works. This continuously choral symphony sets words from Walt Whitman’s Sea Drift and Passage to India, abridged by the composer. The four movements relate to an expanded classical symphonic design of opening Allegro, slow movement, Scherzo, and Finale. Their titles are: ‘A Song for All Seas, All Ships’, ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’, ‘The Waves’, and ‘The Explorers’.


Premiere: October 1910
Leeds Town Hall
Leeds Festival Chorus/Orchestra

On 12 October 1910, his 38th birthday, Ralph Vaughan Williams (VW) stepped onto the podium in Leeds Town Hall to conduct the Leeds Festival Chorus and Orchestra in the first performance of his Sea Symphony. The journey towards the self-knowledge to achieve this epic masterwork had been long and unpredictable. VW had been no prodigy, and his childhood musical progress seems to have owed as much to application as to natural facility.

At Trinity College, Cambridge, he read history while also studying at the Royal College of Music in London – first with Charles Wood, then with Charles Stanford. ‘Stanford was a great teacher,’ he later wrote. ‘But I believe I was unteachable.’

Marriage to the reserved and beautiful Adeline Fisher was followed by many years of musical apprenticeship in London where, despite a family allowance that meant he did not need to earn a living, VW worked conscientiously as a church organist and choral conductor.

Influences

Much energy was also going into collecting English folksongs. He was beginning to sense how the melodic qualities of this treasure house of material could generate the possibility of larger orchestral forms, and a musical voice of uncanny vividness began to emerge in In the Fen Country  (1904) and the fetchingly beautiful Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906). Other factors were coming together, too. Toward the Unknown Region  (1907) was the first product of a life-changing encounter with the verse of Walt Whitman and its tone of aspirational, mind-expanding spiritual adventure. Meanwhile, the wistful regretfulness of Whitman’s polar opposite among poets, AE Housman, inspired another major achievement: the chamber song-cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909).

By now the 30-something composer, still sensing a need to learn, had taken himself to Berlin to study with Max Bruch, then to Paris. There, Maurice Ravel gave his English pupil’s music what Vaughan Williams later liked to describe as some ‘French polish’. Ravel’s teaching amounted to a lot more than ‘polish’: it was the decisive element that finally set VW’s imagination free to roam on the largest scale. He recalled  how the French master-composer showed him ‘how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines’.

A Sea Symphony had begun life as The Ocean in 1903. So the six years of its creation charted the composer’s parallel journey of self-discovery – by way of the first movement’s broad choral and orchestral strokes (a sturdy tribute to Stanford and Parry), and towards the spiritual immensities searched out with shimmering, Ravel-inspired mastery in the symphony’s finale, ‘The Explorers’. The unforgettable setting of Whitman’s invocation to ‘Steer for the deep waters only’ made its own point: here was a composer now fully equipped to do so.

Recommended recording:

Isobel Bailie (soprano), John Cameron (baritone)

London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Adrian Boult

Decca 473 2412 (5 discs)

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‘I love all films that start with rain…’ writes the poet Don Paterson. But how has rain been rendered in music? Is the mood of a rainy day necessarily melancholic and disappointing or can the rhythm of a good downpour suggest something joyful or cathartic? We have chosen six of the best examples of how rain has been made in music.

Britten: Canticle III: ‘Still Falls the Rain’

‘Still Falls the Rain’ is the refrain that we hear throughout Britten’s setting of Edith Sitwell’s anti-war poem about the Blitz in London, ‘The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn.’ It is set for horn, piano and tenor.

The refrain plays an instrumental role: the changing quality and dynamic of this repetition helps the listener to hear and feel the anger, despair and elegiac lament of the poem, as well as what Heather Wiebe describes as its ‘bleak fixity.’ This sense of stasis conveys the horror and sacrifice of war.

Britten's Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain - YouTube

Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 – ‘Raindrop Prelude’

A sudden rain shower can create both distance and intimacy. It can often induce a meditative or dream-like mood in the adult, or for the child who cannot go out to play. It is thought Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ was indeed inspired by a dream, according to his partner George Sand’s account of the moment of composition.

In her autobiography, Sand writes that: ‘He saw himself drowned in a lake – heavy, icy drops of water falling rhythmically on his chest - and when I had him listen to the drops of water falling rhythmically on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry at what I translated by the expression ‘imitative harmony.’’ 

This story is part of the mythology that surrounds the magic of this intimate, introspective piece.

Vladimir Horowitz plays Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude in D flat Major, Op.28 No.15 - YouTube

Britten, Noye’s Fludde

Britten’s opera for children, Noye’s Fludde, depicts the dramatic story of Noah’s Ark. The sound of the first drops of this epic deluge is actually made and inspired by domestic objects: the china mug and the wooden spoon. 

Britten’s assistant, Imogen Holst, recalls her own involvement in this moment of experimental composition shared with Britten: ‘I had once to teach Women’s Institute percussion groups during a wartime ‘social half hour’, so I was able to take him into my kitchen and show him how a row of china mugs hanging on a length of string could be hit with a large wooden spoon.’

Noye's Fludde - Benjamin Britten - 720p (Full Opera) - YouTube

Debussy Estampes, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’

‘Jardins sous la pluie’ or ‘Gardens in the Rain’ is from Debussy’s Estampes for solo piano. It evokes the light and colour of a spring shower through its trembling, fluid and slightly frenetic sound. It also seems to capture the delicate quality of each raindrop through this rapidity of notes.

Pianist Stephen Hough writes that ‘Debussy’s discovery of new sounds at the piano is directly related to the physiology of hands on keyboard.’ As we are transported by the intense mood of rain communicated in this piece, we are also experiencing the physicality of the piano and the movement of fingers in a new way.

Debussy: Jardins sous la pluie - played by Debussy (piano roll) - YouTube

Judith Weir, The Welcome Arrival of Rain

Rain in this piece is a response to the monsoon rains returning in India, and is inspired by an extract of verse from the Hindu text, Bhagavata Purana. The piece captures the sense of sudden rain, its syncopating rhythmic energy, and the change, renewal and growth it brings. 

It also becomes a metaphor for the process of creativity itself, as Weir describes: ‘Whilst I composed it, as the notes and the pages multiplied, I began to think of a comparison with the arrival of the monsoon in India, when aridity is pierced by life-giving rain; and humans, animals and vegetation revel in sudden activity and fertility.’

The Welcome Arrival of Rain - YouTube

John Luther Adams, In the Rain

How does rain sound? In the Rain investigates and experiments with how we hear its changing rhythms. Adams encourages us to attend to the sonic expression of the natural world, as well how the rain encounters and catches on objects and surfaces. There is a numinous, otherworldly quality to this work.

In the Rain - YouTube

Words by Laura Helyer

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The historical journey of choral music is a fascinating one. It’s journeyed from plainchant, sung in a strict liturgical settings by monks underneath the spires of great churches and cathedrals across Europe; meandered through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with newfound polyphonic and harmonic purpose thanks to the pioneering compositions of Byrd, Bach and Beethoven; and evolved further and dissected by early 20th century composers such as Mahler, Schoenberg and Britten.

Fast-forward to today and choral music is thriving. Communal singing is more alive than ever in local choirs, choral societies and churches, and new works are being churned out year on year. So to help freshen up your listening sessions and unearth some more hidden gems from the present day, we’ve decided to share six contemporary choral works that deserve your attention. 

Judith Bingham – First Light

Written in 2001 by British composer Judith Bingham for the Winchester-based Waynflete singers, First Light is set to a poem by Mark Shaw about the Incarnation - the religious belief that God became man through Jesus Christ. Bingham plunges listeners into atmospheric uncertainty from the offset of this piece, thanks to her macabre harmonic language and dynamic writing for brass ensemble and choir. The singing itself is epic, fluctuating between delicately sung passages and moments of thunder.

First Light - YouTube

John Adams – Harmonium

John Adams’s Harmonium is a wondrous, sonic treat for the ears. Composed between 1980 and 1981, the piece pulses with layers of minimalist textures similar to those heard in the works of other composers of this era including Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Adams uses these layers of sound to drive the music forward in its most epic moments, and provide an ethereal backdrop in others.

John Adams - Harmonium - BBC Proms 2017 - YouTube

Magnus Lindberg – Graffiti

The clash of old and new comes to a head in this 2009 work by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. The piece's sung text directly derives from vandalism found in Ancient Roman cities, using the Latin language to bring to life the scribbles in and around Pompeii and Herculaneum. The choral writing itself ventures through dramatic, eerie and chaotic soundworlds, reaching an exhilirating climax when the choir’s complex polyrhythmic patterns unite in force. It’s a distorted ode to a world once dominated by the Roman Empire that feels further away than ever.

Magnus Lindberg: GRAFFITI (2009) - YouTube

Meredith Monk – Panda Chant II

Now for something a little different - a work written by avant-garde composer and vocal improviser Meredith Monk. 'Panda Chant II' is taken from Monk's 1983 science-fiction opera The Games, written for 16 voices, synthesizer, keyboards, Flemish bagpipes, Chinese horn and rauschpfeife. The Games is set in a post-nuclear future, where citizens take part in ritualistic games in order to save themselves and the remainder of civilisation. 'Panda Chant II' highlights the flexibility of the human voice as it morphs into the sound of our furry friends.There’s no denying the barminess on show in this minute-and-a-half musical thrill ride of overlapping rhythms, but it’s an incredibly fun piece of music – especially when you add in body percussion of rhythmic stamps and claps.

Meredith Monk - PANDA CHANT II - GHOSTLIGHT Chorus - YouTube

Eric Whitacre - Lux Aurumque 

A translation of the poem Light and Gold by Edward Esch, Lux Aurumque was originally a piece for wind ensemble before being fully introduced to the world as a choral work by composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in 2009. It’s a stunning piece of contemporary choral music, in which Whitacre keeps listeners guessing with every chord, while, at the same time, dazzling with transcendent textures. The final chord is one of pure bliss, and is the cherry on top of an arguably perfect piece of choral music.

King's College Cambridge 2010 #18 Lux Aurumque - YouTube

The London Contemporary Voices will be performing at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday 18 May in a concert exploring the themes of order, disorder and chaos alongside Elena Tonra from the band Daughter, Faroese artist Eivør, folk musician Rachel Sermanni, Indian singer Deepa Nair Rasiya and more. 

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Violin Concerto in D minor

Such is the popularity of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor that people tend to overlook that, as a 13 year-old, he also wrote one in D minor – in fact, the music world was almost entirely unaware of it until Yehudi Menuhin reintroduced it to the concert hall in 1951. Scored for violin solo and strings and generally genial throughout, it’s rounded off by a cheekily charming Allegro finale. 

Recommended recording:
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin); Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
Signum SIGCD342

Violin Concerto in D Minor: I. Allegro molto - YouTube

Organ Sonatas

The Six Organ Sonatas were published in England in 1845, over 20 years before César Franck’s Six Pièces, works that many assume kick-started the modern organ revolution. In fact, it was Mendelssohn who first gave the organ a 19th-century lease of life with these half-dozen gems, each requiring technical and musical mastery. If only British organs had been up to the task of playing them (most suitable instruments had heavy actions and lacked pedalboards), Mendelssohn’s Sonatas would have gained momentum much sooner.

Recommended recording:
William Whitehead (organ)
Chandos CHAN 10532

Mendelssohn - 6 Organ Sonatas Op.65 - YouTube

Six Duets, Op. 63

If the superlative lyrical talents of Schubert and Schumann tend to cast Mendelssohn’s solo lieder in shadow, his vocal duets deserve the limelight. In the sublime Six Duets, Op. 63 (1845) for two voices and piano, Mendelssohn sets texts by poets including Heine and Burns. His melodic gift takes wing in the bittersweet Abschiedslied der Zugvögel and in the heartfelt Volkslied, while in the dancing Herbstlied Mendelssohn sets words by his friend Carl Klingemann.

Recommended recording:
Lucy Crowe (soprano), William Berger (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
Delphian DCD34167

Barbara Bonney; Angelika Kirchschlager; "Abschiedslied der Zugvögel"; Felix Mendelssohn - YouTube

St Paul (oratorio)

Mendelssohn points to his inspiration pretty clearly at the outset of this 1836 oratorio as he launches us into an overture based on Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. After that, we follow the life of St Paul from his conversion to Christianity through to his martyrdom. It’s a work that has much of the dramatic flair of Mendelssohn’s hero’s own oratorios, and is capped off by sublime arias such as the baritone’s ‘Gott sei mir gnädig’.

Recommended recording:
Maria Cristina Kiehr, Werner Gura etc; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Frieder Bernius
Carus CARUS83214

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Paulus op.36 aus dem Katharinensaal der HMT-Rostock - YouTube

Cello Sonata No. 2

Even those usually driven to distraction by Mendelssohn’s penchant for Bachian chorales can’t fail to be struck by a sense of reverence as spread chords in the piano introduce the Adagio third movement of his Second Cello Sonata from 1843. The cello then takes over with an achingly beautiful melody before – and here’s the masterstroke – the chorale returns to the piano, but this time in accompaniment to the cello. An inspired moment, worthy of JS Bach himself.

Recommended recording:
Paul Watkins (cello), Huw Watkins (piano)
Chandos CHAN10701

Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata in D major op. 58 (Johannes Moser and Lorenzo Cossi) - YouTube

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.  

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